Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

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Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (and other power tools).

All attempts at theorizing social life are, at the same time, works of autobiography

– William Simon, 1996

As we read a text. . . we produce something different, another text which is a translation

– Ian Parker, 1999

Pic: Sewing Machine - GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

Pic: Sewing Machine – GO FASTER! GO FASTER!

I was watching a re-run of the Australian version of Changing Rooms, one of the many home improvement shows conveniently gathered together on one Cable channel. An ‘expert’ was initiating his acolyte into the mysteries of the jig-saw. The expert explained ‘It’s like a sewing machine only a bit more manly’. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the sewing machine and the ‘more manly’ jigsaw. However, both are essentially power tools.

Thinking about the arbitrary nature of gender labels I recalled two questions from performance artist Laurie Anderson‘s film of her show Home of the Brave. In it she asks ‘Which is more macho: Pineapple or knife? Which is more macho: Light bulb or school bus? I’ll let you ponder those questions for a while. Read on. . .

At about the age of four or four and a half I was watching my mother on her sewing machine. It all looked a little space age to me, like something from a science fiction film. I was enthralled by this alien contraption with its roaring engine,and the sense of danger and excitement it evoked, and the little spotlight on the side. I remember saying to my mother ‘When I’m a girl, I’m going to have a sewing machine’ to which she replied quite flatly ‘You’re never going to be a girl’. Boy! She sure knew how to spoil the fun. I took this to mean that I would never own a sewing machine of my own. I was destined to a be one of life’s spectators. Now I cherished this little story for my years as early evidence of my gender transgression. It helped to explain why I never liked football. As Oscar Wilde says’ It’s a game for rough girls not delicate boys’.

Fast-forward fifteen years and I found myself drawn to Yoko Ono‘s ‘Painting for a Broken Sewing Machine’ in her book Grapefruit:

Place a broken sewing machine in a glass tank ten or twenty times larger than the machine. Once a year on a snowy evening. place the tank in the town square and have everyone throw stones at it

At the time I was working in a very dull insurance office and decided to impart the sagely wisdom from Grapefruit. One person got very annoyed trying to understand the ‘sewing machine piece’, of course, fuelled by me re-reading it and placing the emphasis on a different word each time and nodding in a ‘knowing way’. Eventually I was told ‘just get on with your work’. I suppose with the ‘sewing machine piece’ you either get it or you don’t. The people who did get it at the time were perhaps the ones who realized there wasn’t really anything to get. Writing this now, I’m struck by how the work I get on with and the time-wasting have in many ways traded places.

Over the years I’ve told my ‘gender transgression sewing machine story’ countless times. However, it wasn’t until I realised that it might be read as ‘text’ and therefore capable of translation that made me begin to question my interpretation.  My original translation was based on my prior conviction that my behaviour was somehow inconsistent with my assigned gender. It was time to take my sewing machine story out from under the glass (gender lens) or at least throw a few stones at it.

Having studied gender in great depth I realized how the concept ofgender constancyputs a very different spin on things. It’s not until about 5 to 7 years that children realize that they are stuck in a particular gender for life. Up until then they think it’s possible to cross back and forth.

I tried to remember what I liked about my mother’s sewing machine and I realized it was all about the speed. I liked the foot pedal and how it revved the engine. I remembered shouting ‘go faster, go faster’ and getting very excited by it all. Hey I was four and we didn’t have a car, so what’s a boy to do? So, far from being evidence of my gender transgression, the story could equally be one of gender conformity. Boys like fast cars, don’t they?

Still glued to the home improvements channel, a guy referred to the sewing machine foot pedal as ‘the accelerator’ and then another asked ‘where’s the clutch?’ In an episode of Naked Chef, ‘new lad’, Jamie Oliver justified his preference for his turbo-charged six-burner cooker over his mother’s ‘old-world range’ on account of  ‘being a boy’.

The need to ‘re-gender’ our power tools says a great deal about the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes. Such attempts re-iterate the deeply ingrained belief in the sanctity of binary gender and are, to a degree, apologies for gender transgression. Part of gender conformity is to learn the art of knowing what is macho and what is not. According to Laurie Anderson, a pineapple is more macho than a knife and a school bus is more macho than a light bulb. Of course they are arbitrary distinctions and I have tried these questions with students. The ‘correct’ answers are usually met with an indignant ‘who says so’? Invariably when attempting to ‘gender; objects, the discussion most often centres on the similarities to the penis. So that long, sharp, pointy powerful thing must be a boy. This exposes the societal blueprint that objects and emotions are gendered by ‘virtue’ of their similarity to the shape of genitals. Think about it: men are seeing as more ‘outgoing’, and women are seen as more’ inward looking’ or men wield and women yield, according to the stereotype. Are we just trying to live our lives according to the contents of our pants?

So, given that both the sewing machine and jigsaw are both power tools, which is more macho?

To this day I have never owned a sewing machine nor a car, nor a jigsaw. Furthermore, I’m happy to say that I still don’t like football!

The fabric often tears along ragged, often hastily sutured seams

– William Simon, 1996

Link:

Gender & Seven Deadly Sins